Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) was the lone vote against the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) against the perpetrators of 9/11. However, 17 years later her fight is getting significantly less lonely. Last year, Lee proposed an amendment to an appropriations bill calling for the repeal of the AUMF. She had proposed such an amendment before, yet this time she found a bipartisan group of supporters. The Appropriations Committee, in a stunning move, voted overwhelmingly to accept her amendment. The room broke out in applause.
In spite of this, the amendment never made it to the House floor. In an undemocratic move, House Speaker Paul Ryan removed it from the appropriations bill before it went to the whole House. Nevertheless, Lee’s fight is far from over. On February 27, 2018 the House Progressive and Liberty Caucuses held a bipartisan hearing on repealing the AUMF. That same day 106 members of Congress sent a letter to Speaker Ryan urging him to allow an AUMF debate about ongoing US military operations in Syria on the House Floor.
The original AUMF was voted on just a few days after the horrific terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. It authorized the President to use
all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.
Shortly after voting against it, Lee explained that she felt like it was a blank check for war. Lee’s prediction was prophetic. A 2016 study found that the AUMF had been used to justify 37 military operations in 14 countries. Obama claimed the AUMF authorized him to take military action in Libya and Syria. Both Obama and Trump have cited the AUMF as authority to target ISIS, even though ISIS did not exist at the time of 9/11 and thus could not possibly be said to have “planned, authorized, committed, or aided” the attack. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson recently announced that ISIS was almost defeated, but that the US planned to stay indefinitely in Syria. In spite of the fact that no one voting on the AUMF in 2001 had a future Syrian civil war on their mind, the Trump administration claims the AUMF gives them that authority.
The AUMF is not just about military action, it has been used to justify warrantless wiretaps, mass surveillance and indefinite detention. It is the AUMF that gives the United States the “authority” to detain individuals at Guantanamo. The amorphous nature of the AUMF, which allows for an ever expanding definition of who the enemy is, has disturbing ramifications in the detention context. For example, not only has Trump pledged to expand Guantanamo, his administration is currently militarily detaining a US citizen overseas without charge. The individual is alleged to have been an ISIS fighter captured in Syria and the Trump administration argues the AUMF gives them such authority. While lawyers challenging this detention have argued the AUMF does not grant the authority to detain ISIS fighters, as they lack any nexus to 9/11, repealing the AUMF would go a long way in placing an in important check on indefinite detention.
The Constitution gives Congress, not the President the power to declare war. The United States is currently engaged in escalating military operations in a number of countries, including Syria, Yemen, Somalia, and Niger. None of these conflicts have been authorized by Congress. The executive branch has cited an anachronistic AUMF as a way to sidestep a congressional debate. Only 20% of the current members of Congress even held office when the AUMF was voted on. It’s long past time to repeal the AUMF and hold a debate over the US military’s current operations.